Listening to Art

02.06: Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time

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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume two, number six: A Dance to the Music of Time, by Nicolas Poussin.

Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.

This painting, done around 1634 to 1636, now hangs in the Wallace Collection in London, England. British novelist Anthony Powell (1905–2000) went there many times to look at it, and used its title for his twelve-volume novel sequence that is one of the greatest works of literature of the twentieth century.

The first novel in the series, A Question of Upbringing, opens with the narrator looking at some workmen on a street-corner warming themselves at an open fire. Here is the second paragraph (omitting the last line), which mentions this painting without explicitly naming it, and sets out the major theme of the series.

For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world—legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea—scattered, unco-ordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined. These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.

This is a painting, oil on canvas, 104 cm wide by 82.5 cm high.

Now let’s listen to A Dance to the Music of Time, by Nicolas Poussin, recorded at the Wallace Collection, in London, England, on 21 December 2017.

That was A Dance to the Music of Time by Nicolas Poussin. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.

For more information and links to things I’ve mentioned, please visit listeningtoart.org.

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Bibliography

All web sites accessed as of 01 February 2018.